Thursday, December 1, 2011
Monday, November 14, 2011
When the SRC’s Facilities Master Plan was unveiled last week, there was some surprise, some relief, and some criticism. Many media outlets wondered why so few schools were being closed when there are 70,000 empty seats district-wide. But, let’s take a closer look at the alleged 70,000 seats sitting empty in our public schools. Do this many empty seats truly exist? Many of us who work in buildings with ‘empty seats’ contend that this number is vastly inflated. Kristen Graham, of The Inquirer, recently reported that 10,000 of those empty seats are in ALREADY closed buildings. SO, why include them in the total? Those seats are already out of circulation. Some parent advocates and educators point out that the number of alleged empty seats seems to keep rising rather quickly.
Although the authors of the facilities master plan insist they counted accurately, I can think of several reasons why they might not have: Special Ed Rooms, Science Labs, Computer/Writing Labs. For example, my school (like many others) has a variety of Special Education classrooms. These rooms are for Life Skills Support, Autistic Support, and Multi-Disabilities students and have a legal cap on the amount of students assigned to them. That legal cap is far less than the 20-33 students a regular education classroom can hold—in some special education classes only 6 students may be in the class. If the people tallying up empty seats mistakenly count the rooms used for special ed classes as being able to hold 33 students, they have vastly over-counted “empty’ seats. In our school, we were lucky enough recently to be able to turn two rooms into a science lab. Although that lab can serve all 400 and some kids in the school, those two rooms can no longer be counted as classrooms that can hold 66 more students than we already have. The same holds for the computer and writing labs that some schools have. Most people believe that the Ohio firm hired to tally the empty seats never went through buildings to see actual use. I do not believe they had an accurate picture of how space is utilized in our buildings. They simply used old data to count classrooms, multiplied by students, then took 75% of that number, and came up with a number of “empty seats”.
The ways space is utilized in schools in the twenty-first century is necessarily different that the way space way used when many of these buildings were constructed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. To give our kids the “Twenty-first Century Education” all the edu-crats keep talking about, space is needed for more than just classrooms crammed to the gills with 33 students apiece (just ask some of the over-crowded Northeast schools). Students need libraries, other research spaces, meeting spaces, and laboratories. If we are going to close schools based on some theoretical number of “empty seats”, the powers-that-be should at least do the hard work of walking through every single building to see how space is actually utilized every day.
Sunday, October 9, 2011
Fresno County California School Superintendent, Larry Powell, has decided to save his school district by technically retiring and foregoing his $288,000 yearly salary for the remaining three and 1/2 years of his term. The first plan was to be rehired with a $31,000 per year salary, yet Powell has decided to give that to charity. Powell said in an interview on MSNBC TV's 'The Ed Show,' "It's time for us to step up and do something. America has always given. It's a time to do that thing right now."
Powell's approach to education reform appears in stark contrast to that of Philadelphia's superintendent who leaves office with a controversial $905,000 buyout package. Education Week states that the controversial private donors have withdrawn from the buyout, leaving the Philadelphia School district to bear the entire cost. "How much do we need to keep accumulating? There's no reason for me to keep stockpiling money," Fresno's superintendent, Larry Powell, 63, is quoted as saying by the Associated Press.
Powell also gave up his $250,000 life insurance policy and says that he will be added to his wife's health care plan. Because of taking early retirement, according to the superintendent, he will receive $28,000 a year less in pension payments for the rest of his life. Larry Powell said that the decision was a serious one that he discussed at length with his wife. Computing that if he lived to be 87, the age of his parents now, he would lose $900,000 in pension benefits, including $200,000 less in earnings for the remainder of his term. Clearly a significant sum of salary, pension and other benefits, Fresno Superintendent Powell decided to sacrifice personal gain for the sake of education in his district.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has applauded Powell for his gift. Duncan issued a statement that said in part, "Larry Powell's leadership is an absolute inspiration. Through a lifetime of dedicated service in education and his generosity, he has made it clear that he is personally and professionally invested in the students, parents, teachers and principals in Fresno. They are very lucky to have him."
Indeed Fresno is very fortunate to have such a leader as Larry Powell. In a time when school districts across the country are struggling to make ends meet and countless teachers, media specialists and other educators are unemployed causing the quality of education to decline, the example of Mr. Powell is like a beacon in the wilderness that is the United States' public educational system, whether we're dealing with traditional or online schools. Individual courage to stand up and make sacrifices for the greater good is just what is needed now, and perhaps others will follow his lead to save our education system. Natalie Hunter
Monday, August 22, 2011
Thursday, June 23, 2011
Sunday, May 1, 2011
Let me say that I believe the No Child Left Behind Law to be essentially unjust and the Adequate Yearly Progress goal to be unfair. However, I do not think cheating is ever justified. First of all, depending on how the cheating takes place, students are made complicit in an illegal act, and no educator should ever do that. Secondly, even if students do not know they are cheating (for example, their answers are changed after they hand in the test), they are given inaccurate results and a false idea of their achievement. Thirdly, it does not really help anyone, or address the inequity of many standardized tests or of our present system. And, last, but certainly not least--IT IS JUST FLAT-OUT WRONG.
Having said all of that, I can also say that I can truly understand and even empathize slightly with the thinking that makes such cheating scandals possible. NCLB and AYP put a huge amount of pressure on school districts to 'improve achievement' (notice it does not say improve learning). Despite all this emphasis on improving test scores and achievement, the monetary and social supports needed to help all children learn are not forthcoming. In fact, stating that anything outside the classroom impacts learning (when we all know it does) has become a copout--thereby enabling 'reformers' and corporate 'do-gooders' to put all the blame for low achievement on the people inside the schools--primarily teachers and principals. Some people, when they see the inequities of the system, when they are bullied and criticized at every turn, when their very livelihood and the calling they have poured their heart and soul into is threatened, will resort to a 'by any means necessary' mentality to raise test scores. None of these reasons justify cheating, they just sadly explain it.
The atmosphere at many schools around testing can easily become paranoid and poisonous. Principals are harangued by regional chairpeople and superintendents, and --in turn--return to their schools to pressure teachers and students. We all want to do our best every day to help our students learn, but most of us agree that test pressure and teaching to the test are not conducive to true learning. Some sort of standardized evaluation is needed, but what is the best and fairest way to do this? That is a discussion for another day, but I think that we can all see that this retaliatory and adversarial system that seems to lead almost inexorably to some cheating is not good for our students or our educational system.
Wednesday, March 16, 2011
*When I entered the 440 building at about 3:45, the polite and professional school police officer at the entrance told me the meeting was full, but I could sit in the viewing area. I said I was going to try to go up, he said "good luck" (not unpleasantly).
*When I got upstairs to the hallway leading to the auditorium, about 20 or so people were waiting there. I talked to fellow TAG (Teacher Action Group) members, and asked the school police officer guarding the door from the public if I could go in. He said the fire marshal had declared the meeting over capacity. (I have this officer's name, but will not print it for fear he will lose his job).
*I pointed out that there were clearly empty seats visible on the video feed. The officer told me "do not question me again" and to go sit down.
*I asked the officer for the name of the fire marshal, was it a city fire marshal, a school district fire marshal, what was his/her name? He said he did not know, but that the school district had fire marshals. I again asked for the name.
*During this time, students, parents, community members and other members of the PUBLIC were trying to gain access to a PUBLIC meeting and were being turned away. The officer was professional and somewhat polite, but clearly getting frustrated.
*When questioned again by me and several other people, the officer again said he did not know the name of the fire marshal, but the Lieutenant (nameless) did. He refused a request to call said Lieutenant so we could find out which PUBLIC official had closed a PUBLIC meeting.
*At that point (about 4:15PM), more and more people were arriving, and it was becoming clear that the people gathered were NOT going to leave. The next person who asked the officer why the meeting was closed was told "My boss told me not to let anyone in." The fire marshal/over capacity story had been abandoned completely.
*A School District official came out (everyone I saw was very careful to have their picture ID turned AWAY from the public) and said they might have room for 20 people in a few minutes. The officer said he would pick the 20 people who had been there the longest, and tried to rationally choose people to enter. He was a little rude to some young students (who had not said anything disrespectful that I heard), and several TAG members allowed students to go into the meeting in their stead.
*At 4:30, some us were finally admitted to the meeting. We were instructed to take empty seats and NOT stand in the back. (Although there were many District Officials standing in the back).
*I believe this instruction was given to make sure we could not all stand together for our protest.
NEXT UP: Inside the SRC Meeting:
OK--We were in the public meeting. I sat next to a nice woman who lent me her printed agenda with the speakers listed. We were there to listen to testimony and carry out a respectful democratic action (holding up signs demanding transparency and putting duct tape over our mouths to symbolize our voicelessness).
*I was quite moved by some of the testimony, and perplexed by others.
* Some students from Martin Luther King High School (scheduled to be Renaissanced) spoke movingly about their attachment to their school and teachers/counselors, and their strong feeling that they should not be considered failures, and their hope that their school would not lose the programs they valued.
*Onika Richardson, a well-spoken student from Audenried who squared off against Ackerman last week spoke again, and said she had brought data to prove that the District's stated data about her school was inaccurate. She offered the data to the SRC--they took it. She also mentioned that she and her fellow students also felt disrespected in meetings with District officials because said officials often "played on their phones and texted" during the meetings. Behavior, by the way, which a teacher or principal would not tolerate in class.
*Next was the brave Mary Delsavio who brought a letter from a frustrated and burned out (yet dedicated) Promise Academy teacher delineating the many problems with the Promise Academy model. Now, at the SRC meetings, each registered speaker is announced as he/she approaches the podium and the names are on the printed agenda--however, when it became clear that Ms. Delsavio was reading a critical letter, a member interrupted her to ask her name AGAIN (what, he was not listening?). She continued to read a very lovely and well-constructed letter about the constraints of the scripted curricula and other features of the "promise" model. The letter was long, but the audience was rapt and then Archie imperiously interjected "you will need to sum up, there are other speakers." Many speakers then called out "We'll wait.", but Archie insisted on the summing up--which Mary then did. She left the podium only to be called back by the very people who had wanted her to hurry---they very pointedly said "What is your name again?" Now, her name had been announced TWICE, they had a printed agenda in front of them, but they asked her name AGAIN. There was a palpable and uncomfortable feeling of intimidation in the air. She said her name, they said "You are here as what?" (I guess meaning a community member, parent , teacher, etc...), and then asked her what her position was (teacher mentor), and pressed rather hard to know WHO wrote the letter (she refused to say, citing fear of "pushback"-- I wonder why). They then said, "Can we at least know what school, so we can investigate?" (Perhaps meaning intimidate teachers and pit them against each other.) Mary said she would not answer and said that she knew as a mentor that the letter could have been written by many of her teachers.
*It was during some of these testimonies that TAG members stood (silently) with duct tape on our mouths and signs demanding transparency and voice.
*Up next was Desiree Whitfield, a parent of a kindergartner from Greenfield who has shown up to defend Ackerman a couple of times lately. Which, I will say, is her right as an American. However, she read an ill-informed and inaccurate screed against Hope Moffet--making it sound (wrongly) as if Moffet had personally set up the walk-out at Audenried and forced the students to the rally.
*Lisa Haver spoke eloquently abouth the need for community involvement and voice and questioned why the SRC (as the old School Board did) could not have at least every other meeting at night in a neighborhood school (where parking and access are not limited). Good question--no answer forthcoming.
*A bus company owner (Mr. Wilson) spoke about the need for more transparent bidding procedures for contracters.
*Teacher Sharon Newman spoke passionately in defense of young, enthusiastic teachers like Hope Moffet, and appealed to the SRC to take all the facts into consideration.
At this point (about 5:15 PM) an SRC member noted that they had been "working since 8:30" (though the meeting did not start until 2:00) and needed a 15-minute break. Fair enough, most teachers (and I daresay parents) had been working since 7:30, so we all needed a break. At that point, I left to go home and continue my workday as a teacher (grading, e-mailing, setting up meetings, etc..), and the SRC meeting went on.... All in all, an interesting experience, but I did get a feeling that, at points, the SRC was just going through the motions of hearing the community.
Monday, February 28, 2011
Tuesday, January 11, 2011
I read a very dispiriting comment in The Philadelphia Public School Notebook
today. It was from a teacher (I have no idea how new or experienced) who feels completely worn out, undervalued, and disrespected at her job in a Philadelphia public school. It made me quite sad for several reasons: It brings home the point that the teaching profession is under fire like never before, it makes me wonder if we can attract and keep good teachers to this very challenging and rewarding profession, and it forces me to consider if teachers themselves (me included) have contributed to to the negative narrative by talking too much about the sometimes exhausting and frustrating aspects of our jobs. There is no doubt that we in Philadelphia (as well as many other areas of the country) have epic challenges before us, and there are times when we wonder why we do what we do and how much longer we will be able to do it. However, there are many wonderful and rewarding things about teaching--not the least of which is the connections we are able to make with students. If you are lucky enough to work in a good school--and by good I do not mean the best test scores, the richest neighborhood, or the newest building--I mean a place with a sense of purpose and community--you can play a meaningful role in the lives of many children. Of course, we are not as important as parents in a child's life, but we do spend a great deal of time with them. Although it is the big things that make news, it is the little things that make our job worth it every day. So, in no particular order, I am listing some things that have made me smile lately (school things):
*The fact that my corrective reading students (as not-fun as it can be) vie for their turn to read out loud.
*A student stopping by my room at the end of the day to apologize (unasked) for earlier bad behavior in class.
*A girl excitedly telling me between classes that she was asked to interview at one of her chosen high schools.
*A student new to our school and resistant to my small group reading class opening up during a writing assignment about one of his favorite places to go.
*Our former students (now in high school) who come back to see us several times a year just to say hello and touch base.
*Colleagues who help me, build me up, let me blow off steam, and make me laugh every day.
*Second graders who like to say hi to me and think it is a big deal to know the 7th and 8th grade teacher (because I teach their sibs).
*Routinely having children (yes, kids raised in this day and age) who open doors for us, offer to carry our bags and boxes, and are otherwise helpful.
*Having a student smile widely and say "Really?!", when I tell him he can take home the book he was reading from my classroom library.
*The fact that, no matter what the district and the reform "experts" throw at us, I truly believe we are making a positive difference in the lives of children every day.
I am not really a Pollyanna or cheerleader, but I believe in what we do. My school is just a regular Philadelphia public school (not magnet), our kids and staff are not perfect, but there is goodness and curiosity in them, and we are a community. Dozens of schools like this exist all over this city. We need to try to think of the good things that we experience every day, and even though we are tired and put upon, try to reach out to colleagues who are losing heart.